BounceTV is a relatively new, honest-to-goodness broadcast network. It’s a network geared at African-Americans—the first program it broadcast in September 2011 was The Wiz. Bounce took a different tack than Oprah’s OWN network, which poured millions into original programming right off the bat and struggled to find an audience, dipping into classic movies before slowly venturing back into original programming as a way to find a voice. It airs a countdown show of R&B and soul music videos, revived a version of The Newlywed Game, and continues its transition into original programming with this new reality show.
Forever Jones follows the titular gospel group, a family band headed by Kim and Dewitt Jones, who minister out of Shreveport, Louisiana. The introductory montage efficiently sets the stage: the band had a big gospel hit, made a splash at the gospel-centric Stellar Awards, but are now looking for direction after releasing a struggling follow-up album. The five Dewitt children—D’Jeniele, Dewitt IV, Dominique, Judah, and Mya—all get a brief introduction to brand them for easy recognition: D’Jeniele is married with a child, DIV needs some direction, Dominique is the star, Judah plays football, and Mya… she’s not in the première much, so she’s the Marlon Jackson for now.
This is a fine time to say that I’m not religious in any way. I went to a Catholic high school and took religion classes, but I always approached it from a historical perspective—and it helped that my school was one of the most liberal Catholic schools around, in danger of losing accreditation from the archdiocese in the Bay Area. But people of deep religious faith have always fascinated me—Forever Jones ignites that particular intellectual curiosity because it pushes the obvious religious overtones of the family, their music, and their church ministry up against parts of society that do not embrace that attitude as vociferously. Right from the start, after the initial family introductions, the family’s producer/manager Keith tells Kim and Dewitt III that their label wants to push solo records from Kim and Dominique. Dewitt wants to maintain the family band, but tends to defer to “God’s plan,” or the idea of an outside force shaping opportunity, which guides the decision to put aside the strictly traditional gospel group and embrace the producer’s judgment for now.
Dominique is the best singer in the family—the recording studio scenes, all the family conversations, and the footage of past performances outline this—and the most likely to be nudged into a crossover attempt. But she gets a lot of outside pressure from Keith to pursue a mainstream music career instead of sticking to gospel—which had “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” ringing in my head—and from her father, who puts pressure on Dom to use her college education (presumably in marketing or something) to help push the family group on social media. It’s also clear that Dominique isn’t exactly cut out to deal with that kind of pressure.
But neither she nor anyone else in the family seems to convey any clear motivation for wanting a music career. They talk about business, how it isn’t going so well, how solo careers could destabilize the fabric of the family, and their love of music—but nobody takes a stand on their future goals outside of a nebulous, sustained growth. These are gospel singers who got their start as a family band in church who have transitioned into a business that looks to exploit branding for financial gain. As one of the Joneses says in the debut, at a certain point it isn’t about how good the music is anymore.
The more interesting split to me is with Judah, who leaves to attend college at Kansas State on a football scholarship. (Although…he’s a 2013 commit, so this season had to get produced incredibly quickly for all of this to line up and make sense.) He’s caught between his two loves, football and music, and while he dreams of playing in the NFL—revealed in a conversation with a jovial pastor mentor—he talks about how music brings joy and inspiration to a larger group of people.
Look, the whole “spread the message through music” vibe littered throughout this show makes me roll my eyes despite wanting to give Forever Jones a fair shake. And the way this decision is framed—through a staged conversation with the pastor and a staged packing scene with Kim crying and talking about losing her baby even though she has other kids who have gone off to college or started their own family—feels incredibly manipulative, pulled straight out of the cheap reality playbook. But it’s another interesting predicament—choosing to play around with the corporate interests of big-time sports or the music industry—and not many kids have to negotiate that choice, especially while vocalizing their commitment to religion.
Some elements betray that commitment more than others. For one, the show is explicitly sponsored by Wal-Mart on all its promotional material. The graduation party the family holds for Dominique features a shoutout to Wal-Mart steaks, highlighting how delicious they are and how anybody who tried them doesn’t have any food left on their plate because SHOP AT WAL-MART ALREADY. In the span of a half-hour show, that’s an obvious distraction, but it’s not the only one. This is a cookie-cutter reality-show formula, from the staged interviews with constant recapping to the canned dialogue when the cameras capture the family together. It takes the standard structure of reality programming and just plugs in the predictable scenes where they need to go. As an imitation of an established, cheap genre, this works, but as entertaining or worthwhile television, it fails to hold attention.
When Kim and Dewitt go on a “date night” together, or when Dominique and Dewitt IV try to get more involved in social media, or when the family drops Judah off at the airport to leave for college, everyone including the viewer is aware this isn’t a documentary, but a marketing tool. This is a family of performers, on stage, in church, and now on camera, projecting a message, a brand, looking to connect with a wider audience for their music and their religion, but also for the bottom line. It’s emphasized multiple times that the band itself isn’t really bringing in a lot of money because its second group album didn’t have a big gospel hit.
Part of me looks at this and wants to dismiss it as foolish or comical—BounceTV is just hoping it connects with the African-American audience the network is seeking— but I’m fascinated by the family consistently reframing everything that happens to them—including kids growing up and not winning at the Stellar Awards after a lackluster sophomore album—through their religious beliefs. In a documentary series, or some kind of anthropological/philosophical study, there would be more information about this type of thinking and how it affects these people, but this is strictly a surface-level PR move that might pay off as moderately beneficial to a network looking to dip their toes into original programming and a gospel group looking to maintain relevance.